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The War Against the Poor

The growing masses of America's poor have been largely ignored—until now. Occupy Wall Street is changing that.

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 3:21 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

We've been at war for decades now—not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home. Domestically, it's been a war against the poor, but if you hadn't noticed, that's not surprising. You wouldn't often have found the casualty figures from this particular conflict in your local newspaper or on the nightly TV news. Devastating as it's been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed—until now.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already made the concentration of wealth at the top of this society a central issue in American politics. Now, it promises to do something similar when it comes to the realities of poverty in this country.

By making Wall Street its symbolic target, and branding itself as a movement of the 99 percent, OWS has redirected public attention to the issue of extreme inequality, which it has recast as, essentially, a moral problem. Only a short time ago, the "morals" issue in politics meant the propriety of sexual preferences, reproductive behavior, or the personal behavior of presidents. Economic policy, including tax cuts for the rich, subsidies and government protection for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and financial deregulation, was shrouded in clouds of propaganda or simply considered too complex for ordinary Americans to grasp.

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Now, in what seems like no time at all, the fog has lifted and the topic on the table everywhere seems to be the morality of contemporary financial capitalism. The protestors have accomplished this mainly through the symbolic power of their actions: by naming Wall Street, the heartland of financial capitalism, as the enemy, and by welcoming the homeless and the down-and-out to their occupation sites. And of course, the slogan "We are the 99 percent" reiterated the message that almost all of us are suffering from the reckless profiteering of a tiny handful. (In fact, they aren't far off: the increase in income of the top 1 percent over the past three decades about equals the losses of the bottom 80 percent.)

The movement's moral call is reminiscent of earlier historical moments when popular uprisings invoked ideas of a "moral economy" to justify demands for bread or grain or wages—for, that is, a measure of economic justice. Historians usually attribute popular ideas of a moral economy to custom and tradition, as when the British historian E.P. Thompson traced the idea of a "just price" for basic foodstuffs invoked by eighteenth century English food rioters to then already centuries-old Elizabethan statutes. But the rebellious poor have never simply been traditionalists. In the face of violations of what they considered to be their customary rights, they did not wait for the magistrates to act, but often took it upon themselves to enforce what they considered to be the foundation of a just moral economy.

 

Being Poor By the Numbers

A moral economy for our own time would certainly take on the unbridled accumulation of wealth at the expense of the majority (and the planet). It would also single out for special condemnation the creation of an ever-larger stratum of people we call "the poor" who struggle to survive in the shadow of the overconsumption and waste of that top 1 percent.

Some facts: early in 2011, the US Census Bureau reported that 14.3 percent of the population, or 47 million people—one in six Americans—were living below the official poverty threshold, currently set at $22,400 annually for a family of four. Some 19 million people are living in what is called extreme poverty, which means that their household income falls in the bottom half of those considered to be below the poverty line. More than a third of those extremely poor people are children. Indeed, more than half of all children younger than six living with a single mother are poor. Extrapolating from this data, Emily Monea and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution estimate that further sharp increases in both poverty and child poverty rates lie in our American future.

Some experts dispute these numbers on the grounds that they neither take account of the assistance that the poor still receive, mainly through the food stamp program, nor of regional variations in the cost of living. In fact, bad as they are, the official numbers don't tell the full story. The situation of the poor is actually considerably worse. The official poverty line is calculated as simply three times the minimal food budget first introduced in 1959, and then adjusted for inflation in food costs. In other words, the American poverty threshold takes no account of the cost of housing or fuel or transportation or health-care costs, all of which are rising more rapidly than the cost of basic foods. So the poverty measure grossly understates the real cost of subsistence.

Moreover, in 2006, interest payments on consumer debt had already put more than four million people, not officially in poverty, below the line, making them "debt poor." Similarly, if childcare costs, estimated at $5,750 a year in 2006, were deducted from gross income, many more people would be counted as officially poor.

Nor are these catastrophic levels of poverty merely a temporary response to rising unemployment rates or reductions in take-home pay resulting from the great economic meltdown of 2008. The numbers tell the story and it's clear enough: poverty was on the rise before the Great Recession hit. Between 2001 and 2007, poverty actually increased for the first time on record during an economic recovery. It rose from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 12.5 percent in 2007. Poverty rates for single mothers in 2007 were 49 percent higher in the US than in 15 other high-income countries. Similarly, black employment rates and income were declining before the recession struck.

In part, all of this was the inevitable fallout from a decades-long business mobilization to reduce labor costs by weakening unions and changing public policies that protected workers and those same unions. As a result, National Labor Board decisions became far less favorable to both workers and unions, workplace regulations were not enforced, and the minimum wage lagged far behind inflation.

Inevitably, the overall impact of the campaign to reduce labor's share of national earnings meant that a growing number of Americans couldn't earn even a poverty-level livelihood—and even that's not the whole of it. The poor and the programs that assisted them were the objects of a full-bore campaign directed specifically at them.

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